After a dismal summer, many cattle across the country have been housed far earlier than usual, with the result there is a greater risk of infectious lameness amongst herds through the winter.

The main infectious causes of lameness are Digital Dermatitis and Foul in the foot. Both of these conditions are caused by bacteria, which are commonly found and spread in the cows’ environment. This year, with the long winter, poor weather and shortage of bedding we have ideal conditions for these bacteria to spread.

Digital Dermatitis, well known as “Digi” is one of the most common causes of lameness in the UK. It is caused by a group of bacteria known as Treponemes which survive well in slurry and dung and can spread from cow to cow easily when cows are housed in winter.

Digital dermatitis affects the skin around the foot and is most commonly found between the heels at the back or at the front of the foot. In the early stages it causes a raw, red area of skin producing a wet exudate over the area. The bacteria bury into this area of skin helping them to hide from any treatment.

Treating the infection can be very straight forward. The most important thing is to thoroughly clean disinfect and dry the affected area before you start. This removes the sticky exudate over the site and allows any product to work effectively. Following this, a topical antibiotic should be applied to the site. Oxytetracycline antibiotic spray is a very effective treatment but may need to be repeated for several days.

For more extensive lesions, or persistent cases, an antibiotic powder can be applied with a poultice and bandage. Any bandage on a cows’ foot should be left on for a maximum of 48 hours. After this, bandages tend to act more like a slurry sponge, becoming wet on both the inside and outside and delaying healing of the Digital Dermatitis. As the infection is on the surface of the skin, injectable antibiotics are ineffective in treating the condition, which is why topical treatment gets the best results.

As in most areas of animal health, prevention is always better than cure and thereare several measures that can put in place to help reduce the risk or incidence of the disease.

As the bacteria lives and spreads in slurry, reducing the contact cows have with the slurry will help prevent the condition. Scraping passages more regularly will minimise slurry pooling and reduce the “slurry wave” in front of scrapers, helping to keep cows feet cleaner. Cows with clean, dry feet have a much less chance of becoming infected.

Regular footbathing will also help keep feet clean, kill bacteria and improve horn quality. In herds with an infectious lameness problem, footbathing can be as regular as every day or as little as once per week in herds with a lower incidence. In beef herds it is most often practical to footbath during disease “flare ups”.

A footbath should be situated where cows are used to walking, perhaps on the exit to the parlour or in the race of a beef unit. This will help to minimise the stress for both animal and operator as the cows will be used to the presence of the footbath. An ideal footbath will be long enough so as each cows foot will get two dips per passing (around 2m) and wide enough to let two cows pass at the one time however, this can be challenging in many set ups.

Most commonly used products are Formailin and Copper Sulphate, with the former added at a dilution rate of 3-4% and copper sulphate at around 10%. The footbath should be renewed after around 200 cow passes depending on size.

As you get in control of the condition, treatments can be reduced, substituting a treatment for a detergent, like washing up liquid, will help keep feet clean and potentially help reduce the amount of footbath product used on the farm.

Foul in the foot, often known as Footrot, is another major cause of infectious lameness. It is again caused by a bacteria found commonly in a cows environment called Fusobacterium Necrophorum. Foul causes a cow to become very lame and most often will only affect one foot. It is identified by broken skin between the digits and symmetrical swelling and redness at the bulbs of the heels. It has the ability to cause deep infection in the foot and swelling of the leg if not treated quickly. If this happens it is what is then called “Super-foul”.

Quick treatment of Foul is important to ensure a successful recovery. Injectable antibiotic treatment is essential with this condition and your vet will be able to advise you on what product is best for your animals.

Again, thoroughly cleaning, disinfecting and applying a topical antibiotic to the foot will help recovery. In this case, administering an anti-inflammatory will help reduce pain and swelling further improving your treatment success rate.

Preventing Foul in the foot can be difficult. The main route of infection for the bacteria is through broken skin between the digits so reducing the risk of this is key. Stoney tracks or uneven surfaces and objects can allow cows to injure themselves letting bacteria set up an infection. Again, reducing the slurry challenge in a shed and regularly footbathing to maintain a healthy foot will all help reduce the risk.

If you are experiencing problems with lameness this winter, please contact your local vet for more information and advice.